Berlin Week 4 (An impressionistic view of Berlin)

One often asks: Where is the Centre of Berlin?

To answer this question is apparently difficult. Is it Brandenburger Gate? Grand, upstanding and victorious, it commemorates the Prussian victory over Napoleon. Its stature rightly qualifies it to be the Centre. Geographically, it is also indeed close to the centre, and moreover, it is situated also in the district “Mitte” (German “Centre). However, as it turns out, I have not been there for even once since I came here 4 weeks ago; and natives don’t go there as well and don’t tend to put it into mind – it seems only tourists go there. Some say the centre is Potsdamer Platz, but it’s obviously too modern to be representative of a historical city. Others recognise the area of Bundestag and Kanzleramt as the centre, but it is s centre of politics, and has an air of being lofty from our folks’ chit-chats. As a matter of fact, this question is difficult to answer when applied to any major cultural capital, be it New York, London, or Paris, but it has almost been agreed upon that this question is especially irrelevant to Berlin, because it is impossible for Berlin to be more multifarious. That being said, if I were to choose a place most representative of Berlin, I would definitely go for the entire Mitte and Potsdamer Platz.

It has been an established routine for me to take the bus 200 everyday from Alexanderplatz after class to my piano studio near Cornelius Bridge. Thats almost a southwest-northeast diagonal across the city. On these bus trips, I have almost never feel inclined to take up my usual habit of reading on public transportation; instead, I take a seat on the upper decker and cannot help but passively absorb the sights of human seas, traffic, and peculiarities of architecture.

Most part of my bus route goes through the “Mitte”, the historical district with boulevards, palaces, and opera houses. The painting of Eduard Gaertner Unter den Linden may well revoke the look of the central boulevard in the past (19 century). However, when one walks along Unter den Linden nowadays, one sees construction sites and notices that almost every building along this historical district is scaffolded. There may be some scaffolding upon the dome of Berliner Cathedral, and the State Opera House of Berlin has moved out of Schiller Theatre because of construction work. It is a shame that the tourists cannot see the most appealing looks of the historical architectures, but it is paradoxically, and probably ironically impossible to ignore the essential beauty even in these constructions projects. With very strict construction regulations and maintenance of traffic order, the constructions do not disrepute the German orderliness. But more importantly, it is deeply exciting to stand at a vantage point of view, for example on the tower of Berliner Cathedral, overlook the grand expanse of construction work peacefully going on and to imagine how the city would look in 20 years’ time in the future, when the building projects would likely have been finished. Most areas of the city centre of Berlin have been destroyed by allied bombing, but instead of building new buildings with glass walls in rigid grids, people have decided to bring back the historical spirit of the city by painstakingly rebuilding Mitte. Underlying this decision is a respect for a nation’s cultural values and historical identity, which are to be carried along and treasured.

Potsdamer Platz has rightly been referred to as Berlin’s new “Mitte”. In the 18th century here stood a toll station and two main roads – Berlin-Potsdamer Chaussee and Preußische Staatschaussee. After WWII this site was where the British, American and Soviet occupation zones bordered each other. Since 1961 the Berlin Wall ran through here and this space therefore became almost a no-man’s land. Several remnants of the former Wall still stand here solitarily, solemnly reminding people the historical scars and fragmentation of this city. Therefore, as a matter of fact, the current layout of Potsdamer Platz only took place shortly after the reunification in 1990. Several buildings are especially representative of the modern flair in the district: Forum Tower in Daimler Complex, Kollhoff Tower, Bahn Tower and Sony Centre. A stroll along the Neue Potsdamer Strasse always inspires excitement and awe, for as a connecting point overriding the former east and west Berlins, Potsdamer Platz expresses itself with a stylistically neutral, thus ultra-modern tonality. It is as if in order to present the totally new facet of Berlin emerging from the darkness of 20th century, the building projects adopt modernity with an extra dosage.

If the Mitte symbolises a historical retrospection, the Potsdamer Platz definitely present a futuristic anticipation. Such is the charm (or more objectively, particularity) of Berlin – it is multifaceted, fragmented, scarred, complicated and above all, diverse. Compared to other cultural capitals, such as New York, Chicago, London or Paris, that are mostly established and intact in comparison, Berlin has suffered significantly in the wars and under the cold war shadows, and in recent decades it has went through a series of re-design, reconstruction and renovation. Besides the remaining historical districts of Berlin, Berlin also appears to be an exciting building ground for new projects and possibilities; it is both old and new, rooted in traditions but in many ways also futuristic. In such a city, one might feel lost, lost in a confusion of identities and feel isolated in a nonchalant irrelevance, but for those who stay here with a sense of purpose and vision, Berlin is always wonderful.

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